On a sunny afternoon, Juárez mom Reyna Lopez and her teen daughter casually window-shopped at stores along Overland Avenue.
For the two ladies, it was fun to see so many colorful quinceañera dresses and get ideas for their own upcoming affair.
"We're planning the quinceañera for December. So we just wanted to come down here and see what the shops have," Lopez said. "I like that we have so many options. We've also been visiting stores in Juárez.
"We like being able to compare what kinds of packages we can get -- some come with the wine glasses and other accessories," she added.
Downtown El Paso has become a hub for ladies looking for quinceañera, prom or wedding dresses. Along Overland Avenue, at least four different stores have prom or quinceañera dresses in their windows. A few other stores are on surrounding streets.
For those who grew up going to shop in Juárez with their parents, the scene is a little reminiscent of businesses along Avenida Lerdo in Juárez about 15 years ago. Meanwhile, the wedding and quinceañera business across the border has become a dismal story.
On a recent walk along Avenida Lerdo, it was quite evident that street -- once referred to as "La Calle de las Modas" -- is no longer home to a bustling, business community that had more than 20 bridal shops.
The once-energetic Lerdo Avenue, across from the Stanton Street bridge, now appears almost devastated, with some shops closed and trimmed with black bows as a sign of a mourning for a loved one killed during the wave of violence in Juárez.
Seamstresses sew quietly while other employees take care of flower arrangements inside the empty and silent stores. Mannequins, clothed in colorful wedding and quinceañera dresses, have their arms spread out as if trying to lure customers to their almost vacant and ghostly stores.
Some merchants were reluctant to comment about their business. They are distrustful of anyone who approaches their stores, since extortionists are known to demand money and protection fees from businesses in Juárez.
Some bridal shops like The Popular, at Lerdo and Mejía, have opened new stores in El Paso, while other storefronts just seem abandoned. The remaining businesses struggle with the loss of faithful customers from El Paso and other cities from the United States, due to the violence in Juárez and the lengthy wait times at the bridges.
"What I can tell you is that we have seen a 70 percent decrease in our customers," said a manager of Paloma Blanca bridal shop who asked not to identified for safety reasons.
"We used to have a flock of people from El Paso, Las Cruces and Albuquerque," the man said while arranging some headpieces and accessories for a customer. "But now, we are not doing well, since people no longer cross to Juárez -- not only out of fear, but they are unwilling to wait up to three hours on the bridges to cross to the United States," he said.
The shop owner said he started his business 10 years ago, when cheerful brides and young quinceañeras from both sides of the border eagerly walked in to pick up their dresses, headpieces and cake knives.
"But now, we are struggling to make ends meet," he said.
Some El Pasoans remain loyal to the print and wedding shops, knowing that they can get better prices in Juárez.
"My wife wanted to order some print invitations for our niece's graduation," Santiago Campos said while waiting outside Sposabella while his spouse ordered a set.
Campos, carrying a small Chihuahua dog, said they look not only for quality but also for affordable prices.
"If you order a bunch of invitations and greeting cards in El Paso, you will pay $300 to $500," Campos said. "Here in Juárez, the same amount of cards will cost you only 600 pesos, or $50."
Aside from a good price, customers daring to cross to Juárez also are familiar with the custom work of experienced seamstresses.
"Our outfits and dresses are custom made," the shop owner said. "You can always go to El Paso to get your wedding or quinceañera dress, but here in Juárez, we are the only ones able to sew the attire at your entire satisfaction."
However, custom designs for quinceañera and bridal gowns are no longer available only in Juárez.
In fact, Paloma Sanchez, manager of Yuri's Quinceañera at 109 E. Overland, said personal service is part of what makes her store stand out. They also carry designs that come from New York, California and Guadalajara, Mexico.
The store owner, Azul Juarez, also owns a bridal shop around the corner.
"It's tough," said Sanchez, referring to the increase in competition Downtown. Even in what should be the busiest time of the year for quinceañera shops, she said, her business continues to be slow Downtown.
"But what we try to show is our handmade work. If a girl wants a dress from a catalog that doesn't come in the color she wants, we can make it for her," she said.
A sign in another shop window announces that the business wants to hire a seamstress, supporting the idea that more El Paso stores are making their own gowns.
Sanchez said her store also tries to distinguish itself through its quinceañera packages. Just as their counterparts in Juárez do, many El Paso stores offer packages that can include the dress, doll, sign-in book and other accessories.
Sophia Adamson, owner of Ella Blu on North Mesa, has heard customers mention that they go Downtown to shop for dresses.
But she is not worried about the prom market.
"When it comes to the prom, we register our dresses, so the girl has the exclusivity of that designer," she said.
Adamson also believes her mother's store, YES, carries the most exclusive designs when it comes to quinceañera dresses -- Viscaya, Mariposa and Q15.
"I know girls shop around in El Paso. But I think due to our service and that our customers know the quality of our gowns, this is where people want to spend their money," she said.
María Cortés González may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; 546-6150.